Video game photo modes got me into real photography

I bought a DSLR camera a week ago, and I absolutely love it. But while I was surprised by quite how much I love it, I probably shouldn’t have been. Taking photographs is what I spend a lot of my time doing in games anyway these days. Most modern games have a photo mode and, after losing hours to tweaking and tinkering, you can share them on Twitter or Facebook. Real photography is exactly the same, only there's a greater chance of getting wet.

From Forza 6 and Driveclub's very technical simulations of real-world lighting and aperture nuances to Pokemon Snap's more fundamental framing advice, gaming has given me a very well-rounded photographic education. So I could say that taking to real photography has been like a Ducklett to water, but that would cause more than a few groans, so don't worry - I won't do that.

Years of reading about Sega Saturn's light sourcing triumphs, Sonic R's reflection effects and PlayStation's superior transparencies as a teenager have given me a gamer's eye view of the world. I even suspect the reason I'm so drawn to capturing reflections in puddles and interesting light sources is because they are traditionally special effects that would capture my attention in a game. And it turns out, in my opinion at least, that's benefiting my photography no end.

That's my camera. For very little extra outlay, I got that zoom lens bundled with it, and I'm so glad I did. In fact, if we consider real-life money as my limited stash of XP to spend, boy, that extra £25 opened up my skill tree fast. It added the 'close up' perk, which if I were writing '10 things I wish I'd known about Photography before I started' would be number one on the list of things I'd suggest you should unlock asap. Thanks to this single ability, I'm suddenly way overpowered for the low-level photography challenges I'd been attempting with my phone. It was time to get out of the Badlands.

I will get onto the more scientific, modern virtues of Driveclub and Forza, but N64 classic Pokemon Snap is seriously a very, very useful tool when it comes to honing your eye for what makes a good photo, so I need to tell you about that first. In it, Professor Oak grades you on your subject's size, pose, rarity and position in the frame. The only area I'd disagree with the prof is how he prefers the subject to be in the centre of the image, whatever its size in the frame. He clearly hasn't heard about the 'rule of thirds', where you break up the frame into 9 equal rectangles in your mind, then position your subject and other points of interest on the points where the lines converge. Close-ups are better centralised, certainly, but not medium-distance shots.

But he was absolutely right about pose and rarity. Where I live, there are pigeons everywhere, equivalent to the Pidgeys in the opening moments of Pokemon Snap. Seagulls are also commonplace, but they're larger and bit edgier – equivalent to a Doduo. But then there's the heron that lives by the canal. I consider him a Meowth-level Pokemon. Somewhat rare, and capable of some amazing poses, but I see him often. And so, having got my new camera, I crept as close as I dared and started snapping.

It's a rare-ish animal in good detail, filling the frame and in profile. I could feel Prof Oak's points tallying up in my mind. But then a man came along walking his dog, and walked right past where the heron stood. And it flew away. CLICK!

Jokes aside, this action shot is clearly more impressive. Of course, I was kicking myself that I was zoomed in so close I didn't manage to get his beak in the shot. I could imagine Professor Oak deducting points for that.

Said professor has got a lot to answer for, clearly. But wildlife is only one half of what I've been trying. I've also been looking at Street Photography, which is much more like the kind of shots I’ve been taking in Driveclub and Forza. Screenshots like this, for instance, have really caught my eye:

That is the importance of contrast and detail. Areas of darkness and areas of light, perhaps with a meeting of both. So I've been trying to capture that level of detail in my pictures. I use depth-of-field (though I fully admit I need to learn more about how to use the aperture to my advantage) to pick out elements of a scene. I've even used cropping to make what would normally have been the subject of a picture instead be almost a background detail. Applying this theory to the wildlife pics, one moorhen I tried to snap as it jumped into the water was blurry – but the surface of the water itself was captured in crystal clarity.

Again, that's photo mode thinking coming in. You can't freeze real life like you can a game, but the moment itself is still frozen, which allows you to play around with filters and cropping until you find something you can work with. You can spend hours turning unremarkable photos into good ones. If that's because you found the contrast of light in the surface of water interesting then why shouldn't that be worth exhibiting?

Someone saw my pictures on Facebook and asked how long I'd been taking photography seriously. I said 'since Thursday'. It's only been a week. But really it's the culmination of some two decades of gaming. Even before photo modes became a thing, I've been appreciating still frames from paused replay angles, and animation frames for over 20 years.

I intend to level up again soon. A Macro lens is needed for the 'is this a Bethesda game' bug-snapping achievement. An infra-red remote and tripod for decent night-time shots. I will 'Platinum' photography. But right now, I'm just pleasantly surprised that starting this new hobby feels like picking up a very familiar control pad.

Justin Towell

Justin was a GamesRadar staffer for 10 years but is now a freelancer, musician and videographer. He's big on retro, Sega and racing games (especially retro Sega racing games) and currently also writes for Play Magazine,, PC Gamer and TopTenReviews, as well as running his own YouTube channel. Having learned to love all platforms equally after Sega left the hardware industry (sniff), his favourite games include Christmas NiGHTS into Dreams, Zelda BotW, Sea of Thieves, Sega Rally Championship and Treasure Island Dizzy.